'Dark Was the Night' at Radio City Music Hall: Bon Iver steals the show
The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Red Hot Organization’s John Carlin have plenty to be proud of. Their years of hard work not only produced Dark Was the Night, a 31-track double album featuring brand-new songs from some of the biggest names in indie rock (including Bon Iver, pictured), but also a terrific benefit concert last night at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. (At the show, Carlin said they have collectively raised over $10 million benefitting HIV/AIDS awareness and research.) So, how was last night’s concert? In a word: fantastic. In another word: collaborative. Click through the jump for an artist-by-artist breakdown of the night’s festivities.
Dirty Projectors: Let it Byrne
There are six members of the Brooklyn-based indie pop/rock outfit Dirty Projectors, but one of them in particular commanded attention: guitarist/vocalist Amber Coffman. The pint-sized gal has quite a powerful voice, one that oscillates between booming and breathy notes with ease. She can also drop plenty of ‘ah’s’ to startling effect. The group performed two tracks before ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne joined them for two more songs, including the upbeat sing-a-long “Knotty Pine.” Byrne’s stratchy-throated voice was well-paired with that of Projectors founder Dave Longstreth, and the band’s cheery (and dance-y) disposition kicked off the show on the right note. Grade: B+
My Brightest Diamond: Feeling good, sounding great
Plucky songstress Shara Worden, who performs under the moniker My Brightest Diamond, absolutely knocked me out. She bounced on and off stage throughout the night, joining the National and Bon Iver onstage later on. But for a magical but all-too brief five minutes, she commanded the stage with a smoky, smoldering rendition of “Feeling Good,” the song made famous by Nina Simone. Worden’s playful, come-hither smile punctuated what was a vocally flawless performance. That last note? The elongated ‘goooood‘? Chills. Feeling good, indeed. Grade: A
The National: Beautiful bores
I’ve long admired the National because of the level of detail in their music. Their songs are so intricate and layered, and typically swell up toward a grand climax (like the trumpets at the end of “Fake Empire,” for example.) Much to my surprise (and dismay), I found the energy in the room palpably deflate once they took the stage. They sounded fine for the most part, but lead singer Matt Beringer was far too stiff. Robotic, even. On “So Far Around the Bend,” there also appeared to be a disconnect between the hordes of musicians on stage. That song, one of my top three or four off the Dark Was the Night album, features extensive orchestration from composer/wunderkind Nico Muhly, in the form of strings (cello, violin) and woodwinds (flute, clarinet). Those elements didn’t translate smoothly, or memorably, on the big stage. On the bright side, they did debut a new song that was quite pretty, with My Brightest Diamond on backup and a kickin’ electro-guitar climax toward the end. The National are more about subtlety than pomp and circumstance anyway. Grade: B-
Dave Sitek: Odd man out
TV on the Radio’s Sitek came on for a one-off cover of the Troggs’ “With a Girl Like You” that was hollow and lifeless. On the album, the song is bolstered by synths, which were missing from the live version. Instead, all we got was a big-band-like arrangement that lacked soul. Sitek’s awkward stage presence didn’t help much, either. Easily my least favorite of the night. Grade: C
David Byrne: Crazy like a (silver) fox
Byrne (humorously clad in tacky red-white-and-blue button-up) has long had ties with the Red Hot Organization, contributing tracks to previous benefit albums. He played a couple of those last night live for the first time. Unfortunately, you could tell he hadn’t played them before. I spotted him peering down toward the lyric screen fairly frequently on “Waters of March,” a duet with Feist. But hey, dude is David Byrne. I can cut him some slack. Bon Iver joined him on “Dreamworld,” a Portuguese-flavored track that featured an African drum solo. The drumming typified the defining qualities of his set: noisy and fun. It was hard not to crack a smile seeing him prance and skip about stage, even if the songs leaned toward underwhelming. Grade: B
Bon Iver: Vocal acrobatics
Bon Iver’s voice is astonishing. The folk singer/songwriter, whose real name is Justin Vernon, manipulates his voice as if it is a tangible instrument. He’s constantly experimenting with different tones and pitches (even auto-tune), but never strays too far away from his piercing falsetto. Last night, he employed a number of background voices to melt against his own to create a communal, sing-song atmosphere (most notably on “Brackett, WI.”) The National’s Aaron Dessner accompanied him for an impassioned rendition of “Big Red Machine,” and My Brightest Diamond followed for “Flume,” one of the very best songs off his debut For Emma, Forever Ago. It all comes back to that voice: listening to him sing — with his eyes-closed, lost-in-the-moment intensity — is a joyous and unnerving experience. Best in show honors, hands-down. Grade: A
Feist: Ticket to ride
Is Feist the new Cat Power? All four songs in her mini-set were covers. The first two (Tim O’Brien’s “Wagoner’s Lad” and Little Wings’ “Look at What the Light Did Now”) were sparse and lovely, and her interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Someday Baby” was brisk and lively. But “Train Song” was the show-stopper. Originally a duet with Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard on the Dark album, the song was here performed with Bon Iver. Lucky us. His presence added gravity to the old-time folk ballad. A chorus of voices (dubbed “the ghostly angels of Bon Iver” in jest) hauntingly chimed in whenever they reached the line “It’s many hundred miles and it won’t be long.” Those harmonies were the only major addition to the song. The rest was just modest guitar-strumming and masterful back-and-forth between the two singers. Their brilliant rendition of “Train Song” easily trumps the one with Gibbard. (Sorry, Ben. At least you still have Zooey Deschanel to go home to.) Grade: A-
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: She got game
Good Lord, for a 53-year-old woman Sharon Jones still has some major kick in her step. The lady is a natural-born performer, the closest thing we have left to a modern-day Tina Turner or James Brown. Speaking of, JB inspired Jones to bust out bombastic dance moves that would’ve made the Godfather of Soul proud. (Extra props to her for doing the “camel walk” in heels.) The only downside? I find “Inspiration Information” to be a tad too cheesy, and a weak link among Dark Was the Night’s two discs. But no matter. Her spirited take on “100 Days, 100 Nights” capped off the night with the bold-faced exclamation point it needed. Grade: B+
Encore: Happy Birthday, Pete Seeger!
Pete Seeger turned 90 yesterday, and had a star-studded bash at Madison Square Garden to prove it. (Simon Vozick-Levinson was there.) The National thanked the audience for coming to their star-studded concert instead, and rallied up the entire ensemble to do a buddy-buddy version of “This Land Is Your Land,” a song the newly-minted nonagenarian performed for Barack Obama at his inauguration. Cute? Yes. But thank god for Sharon Jones. She strolled on stage just in time for a fiery Dap-Kings-ified version of the song. Within seconds, it became the Sharon Jones show. No one minded. I could watch her for hours. Everyone on stage clearly felt the same. DWTN version: B+ ; Sharon Jones version: A
The Show: Oh what a Night
While it’s tempting to gripe about the artists from the album who were not there (like Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, and Arcade Fire, to name just three), there’s no room for complaints when this many indie-rock icons share the same stage. The night could have used even more on-stage collaborations, but what we saw looked seamless and felt organic. Everyone appeared to be genuinely enjoying each other’s company, and proud to participate. Let’s hope the Dessners get to work on another concert, and fast. Or, even better, a Dark Was the Night 2. Make it happen guys. Grade: A-
Have you checked out the Dark Was the Night album yet, Mixers? (Listen on iMeem if you haven’t.) Who else was at Radio City last night? And which bands would you most like to see on a follow-up?